The major parties have declared all is well in the land of lobbying, with current “regulatory” arrangements deemed satisfactory in a Senate committee review initiated by the Greens. The Finance and Public Administration committee majority report, a bipartisan effort, determined that the current lobbyist register was:

“… working effectively and provides transparency to this very important aspect of government activity. The committee considers that it is meeting its aim of allowing ministers and other government representatives to identify the interests being represented to them by those on the Register.”

Note the rationale both for the omne bene conclusion and the register itself — it’s a tool for ministers, not a transparency or accountability mechanism. The Lobbyist Register is for the government to know who is lobbying it, not for the public to know who is trying to influence the government. There’s a significant divergence of interests right there.

The most obvious result of the divergence is that the current lobbyist register is confined to third-party lobbyists, rather than including everyone lobbying ministers, advisers and bureaucrats, and only applies to those lobbying ministers.

In the aftermath of the 2010 election, there was strong support from independent MPs like Rob Oakeshott and Andrew Wilkie to extend the current arrangements to all MPs. They had come under intense pressure from lobbyists in light of their new status as key swing votes on House of Representatives legislation. The current Register was established by Labor in the days of majority government.

To the extent that the committee report grapples with issues rather than simply listing what the committee was told via submissions and hearings, it determines that expanding the register to cover in-house lobbyists would mean expanding it to over 5000 entries and would require greater resources and staffing for the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, which currently maintains it.

Many lobbyists agree expanding the register to include in-house representatives is a significant task, not just because of the large number of corporations, unions, industry peak bodies and NGOs seeking to influence ministers, but because it would rope in a lot of industry consultation work that goes on between corporate representatives and bureaucrats in each portfolio.

Others are equally strongly of the view that it should be expanded. Guy Barnett, a former Liberal senator and now a lobbyist (disclosure: I do a regular segment with Guy on lobbying on ABC Brisbane), made a submission to the committee:

“… the Code does not apply to unions, trade associations, business or community organisations, which in turn covers the majority of all lobbying undertaken at any level of government. To be fair and consistent, it should. If not, why have a Code at all? The Code excludes its application to charitable, religious or other organisations endorsed as deductible gift recipients and not‐for‐profit organisations. It should include such organisations. Not‐for‐profit organisations are some of the largest and most influential organisations in Australia today.”

Barnett also urged the register be transferred to an independent body and be legislated, removing it from the direct control of the government of the day.

The Greens want to go further, and Lee Rhiannon submitted a dissenting report urging a switch to something very close to the hardline Canadian model, in which not merely is the register legislated, applies to all lobbyists and overseen by an independent body, but also extends the register to those lobbying MPs as well as government officials and ministers and would require lobbyists to regularly disclose who they met and what was discussed. This requirement, which is now in place in the UK as well, would be a huge development for transparency.

As Rhiannon notes, when John Faulkner established the Register in 2008 it wasn’t intended only as a tool for ministers and government officials, but for the public as well. The committee is engaging in a subtle sleight-of-hand when it declares it is currently meeting the goal of informing ministers and bureaucrats. The public interest in knowing who is trying to influence the government about what has been ignored by the major parties, leaving the bulk of lobbying to continue behind closed Canberran doors and at private functions where MPs mix with business, unions and NGOs out of the public gaze.

Here’s another, more radical proposal to think about: why not have a centralised transparency body, reporting to parliament, that provides not merely all lobbyists and their meetings with MPs and officials, but their donations to political parties and MPs, and MPs’ pecuniary interest disclosures, all in one online resource?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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